Privilege

This term has been popularized by progressives in recent decades as a way to raise consciousness about what they see as system-wide, structural disadvantages facing racial minority groups, as well as advantages other groups may enjoy, advantages that contribute to making them more economically and psychologically secure, upwardly mobile, etc. For instance, for white Americans, this may include the absence of a certain kind of fear (of police) and being taught a European-centered history filled with white agency and accomplishments that contribute to a sense of belonging and competence relative to those with  racially marginalized identities.

Others speak of “male privilege” and “heterosexual privilege” as encompassing similar unearned advantages associated with group status.  For progressives, the existence of  privilege is seen as creating an affirmative obligation to acknowledge it, try to understand  its impact, and explore strategies for moving towards a world where everyone is equally “privileged.”

Without denying real inequities that can and do exist, many on the right view this term with great hesitancy - seeing it as yet another way that the categories of  race, class, gender and sexual orientation are depicted as the central and defining explanations for societal ills.  All the associated remedies, in turn, become likewise focused on structural changes directly addressing these same categories.  For religious conservatives, these same social ills are often explained with very different conceptual structures - e.g., the existence of a “fallen world” where all human beings are subject to diverging impulses and choices, often (but not always) tied to various ensuing advantages or disadvantages incurred in life. From this vantage point, human beings can remedy many difficulties (not all) by personal actions leading to further alignment with God’s will - rather than only awaiting larger structural changes.   Similarly, conservatives for whom faith is less central also tend to focus on individual agency and see the discourse surrounding privilege as encouraging victimhood and lack of personal responsibility.

Any such hesitancy about the term privilege, however, may be interpreted by those on the left as evidence of that very privilege - since, the argument goes, the current power dynamics of the world don’t force those with privilege to face oppression - and thus, remain conveniently “blind” to their various privileges. Given this double-bind (your hesitancy is additional evidence of the term under question), it can be difficult to acknowledge honest disagreement about the term - similar to what happens with race and racism.   

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:  

-Is it useful to consider how we might enjoy certain unearned privileges based on group status? How might it be useful?

-Is it possible to integrate the concept of privilege with notions of self-responsibility. What would that look like?

Contributors: 

Mikhail Lyubansky

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